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Distinctive Cues Boost Effectiveness of Reminders

Distinctive Cues May Boost Effectiveness of Reminders

Need help remembering to pay the electric bill or take the clothes out of the dryer?

New research shows that linking those everyday tasks with distinctive cues that we encounter at the right place and the right time will help us follow through.

While there are many ways to remind ourselves to do something in the future — setting an alert on our smartphones or a quick note on a Post-It — these strategies often don’t work because they don’t provide a reminder that will be noticed when we need it most, according to researchers.

“Our results suggest that people are more likely to follow through on their good intentions if they are reminded to follow through by noticeable cues that appear at the exact place and time in which follow-through can occur,” said study author and psychological scientist Dr. Todd Rogers of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

These “reminders through association” may be a tool for remembering and following through on these tasks, according to Rogers and co-author Dr. Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers noted that, by design, these cue-based reminders don’t depend on technology, but rather on the human mind. What’s more, they are delivered exactly when we need them.

In one experiment for the study, 87 participants completed an hour-long computer task. During the task, they learned they would be able to have a dollar donated to a food bank in addition to receiving compensation for participating in the study. To ensure the donation would be made, however, they had to pick up a paper clip when they collected their payment.

Some students saw a second message stating that an elephant statue would be sitting on the counter where they collected their payment as a reminder to pick up a paper clip; others were simply thanked for their participation.

According to the researchers, this simple cue boosted follow-through. The results showed that 74 percent of the students who received the elephant statue as a cue ended up taking a paper clip compared to only 42 percent who didn’t receive a cue.

But this doesn’t mean that any cue will do, the researchers noted. Additional studies conducted online indicated that distinctiveness matters. That’s because a reminder cannot work if it is not noticed, they say.

For the online study, participants again learned about an opportunity to support a charitable organization. To have a donation made on their behalf, they had to choose a specific answer on a specific page of the survey they were about to complete. On that page, they would see a cue to remind them to select the correct answer.

The results revealed that cues that were distinctive compared to the other cues in the surrounding environment were more effective reminders.

In one experiment, for example, Rogers and Milkman found that a distinctive cue — an image of one of the aliens from the “Toy Story” movies — was more effective than a written reminder when both cues were surrounded by other flyers and promotional signs.

In another experiment, data collected from customers at a coffee shop suggest that the “reminders through association” approach may also be useful for organizations that want to help their clients remember to follow through on intentions.

Over the course of one business day, 500 customers were given a coupon that would be valid at the coffee shop two days later. Only some customers were told that a stuffed alien would be sitting near the cash register to remind them to use their coupon.

About 24 percent of the customers who were given a cue remembered to use their coupon, compared to only 17 percent of the customers who received no cue — a 40 percent increase in coupon usage, the researchers reported.

While distinctive cues may serve as reminders, people don’t always make the most of them.

Results from another online study with 605 participants showed that participants failed to anticipate the limitations of their own memories. In doing so, they missed out on potential earnings by choosing not to pay a nominal fee to receive a cue-based reminder, the researchers noted.

Taken together, the study’s findings suggest that reminders through association offer a no-cost, low-effort strategy for remembering to complete the tasks that tend to fall through the cracks in daily life, the researchers concluded.

The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Distinctive Cues May Boost Effectiveness of Reminders

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Distinctive Cues May Boost Effectiveness of Reminders. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 24 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.